No matter what you’re told about how a cancer diagnosis can affect you, nothing can quite prepare you for how different the world looks in the days and weeks after you first find out what is happening to you.
The grocery store you stop at several times a week looks larger than it should. The people inside look uglier. The fact that they’re not all aware of how fragile their lives are might make you want to scream at them, to wake them up to the fact that nothing is okay, that everything is broken, and the world has ended.
Not everyone will react this way to a cancer diagnosis, but chances are you’ll react. You’ll want to lash out at people, or you’ll retreat from everyone. You might attempt to drown yourself in addictive behavior, or you may find yourself refusing help that you need.
These are common reactions to a cancer diagnosis, marking the start of challenges that you’ll face over the coming months and years. As unpleasant and violent as these reactions can be, they can also be dealt with. This all starts with knowing what you’re dealing with.
Setting the Stage
Distress, anxiety and depression might sound like synonyms but they’re all states of being that you are likely to travel though after you’ve been diagnosed with cancer. They are also states that loved ones and those around you will have to endure, both as a result of assisting you and coming to terms with their own pain surrounding your diagnosis.
Grief is another emotional state you’ll traverse and it’s this one that’ll start up immediately after you’re diagnosed. Depending on who you ask, there are varying numbers of stages of grief, but the Kübler-Ross model suggests there are just five: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance or hope. Almost everyone starts at denial and denial almost immediately after the diagnosis. You start telling yourself things like:
“Maybe it’s not so bad. Maybe the doctor made a mistake. I don’t feel that bad, this can’t be true.”
The worst thing about denial is that sometimes it’s valid. Sometimes test results aren’t conclusive. Sometimes a diagnosis is incorrect. But that’s a little like winning the lottery – it doesn’t happen to nearly as many people as you’d think.
Anger, however, isn’t far behind and it tends to stick around if you don’t take steps to deal with it. Bargaining, unfortunately, doesn’t work.
Trauma is Universal
The way that a human mind reacts to a cancer diagnosis is very similar to the way patients react to an amputation. Those who aren’t expecting the revelation feel traumatized and angry, and may come to resent their bodies for failing them in some way. Some will find it a relief, because the treatment solves a much larger problem for them. But no matter what reaction you display, there is bound to be a reaction. The trick is recognizing what’s happening to you, while it’s happening, so you can choose to cope in a way that’s more beneficial to you and your community.
It’s important to know that, no matter what you’ve been told about your cancer, you will find a way to cope with it. Not every coping method is created equally – the easy ones are frequently the most harmful, to you and those in your orbit.
You might opt to overcompensate – you’ll become hostile and angry, more or less stuck between the first and second stages of grief. You’ll refuse help, you’ll insist that you can perform the way you used to, or you’ll look for ways to take advantage of your diagnosis at the expense of others.
You might surrender. You’ll cope by refusing auxiliary treatment and pushing back against whatever your doctor recommends. You’ll try and avoid chemotherapy, claiming to be too sick to undergo it when in reality you’re just afraid of what’ll happen if it doesn’t work.
Or you might select avoidance. You’ll pretend nothing is wrong, withdraw from your social and family circle entirely (perhaps justifying it by saying that you “…don’t want to burden them”) or adopt behaviors or addictions that smother your ability to feel emotion.
Or, more likely, you’ll experience a combination of these three. All of these are common coping mechanisms but they can do more harm than good. They harm you, by preventing or delaying effective treatment, and they harm those around you, by increasing pressure on them or by preventing them from helping you in the ways they want to.
Half the battle
It’s almost normal to go through these behaviors in the wake of a traumatic experience. It’s even excusable, in a way. Your world, the world that just yesterday was exactly the way it had always been, has irrevocably shifted in ways you can’t predict. Feeling off-balance is expected. But returning to a balanced position as soon as possible benefits you in the long run.
Knowing what you face, how you might act and react without thinking, can help you to choose to do something other than scream at a stranger in a supermarket for a reason you don’t think they’ll ever understand.
There are other lifelines worth hanging onto during your newest and perhaps greatest storm. Make sure that your medical professionals are aware of what you’re going through. It may not seem like it, inside where the weather is raging, but they understand what you’re experiencing. And they’re all willing to help. Honesty about what you’re feeling with your doctor and other support staff will cut down your fears to something approaching life-sized.
The second is that your friends and family are also able to help. They may also need some help of their own – which is why they should be just as open and honest with your medical professional about fears and expectations – but it’s likely that they can act as a source of strength.
But that strength is not bottomless. If you’re lashing out or pushing them away, you’re draining positive resources at no benefit to yourself. But, together with your doctors, you and your loved ones can pull together to make the best of a situation nobody should have to endure – but that many do.